TED Blog

In courtrooms, eyewitness testimony is considered extremely powerful. But should it be? At TEDxUSC, forensic psychologist Scott Fraser explains why, even when witnesses feel sure they are telling a true story, or making the right identification, their minds could be playing tricks on them — filling in blanks in traumatic memories with erroneous information.

Fraser tells the story of Francisco Carrillo, who at age 17 was identified as the gunman in a drive-by shooting that left a man dead on the street in front of his teenage son and five friends. After maintaining his innocence for 20 years, Carrillo was released from jail in 2011. (Read the Los Angeles Times’ take on his release.) While all six teenage witnesses gave testimony that they had clearly seen Carrillo fire the gun from a moving car, a re-creation of the conditions of the shooting showed that it had been…

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The Critical Dilemma: Struggles and Hopes of A Needle Exchange Program in Madison

It’s ten o’clock on a sunny Friday morning. In his office at AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, located one block away from the Capitol, James Reinke started to pack up boxes and bags of supplies and bring them down to his cobalt blue Dodge minivan waiting in front of the building. He piled up boxes of various sizes of syringes in the backseat, dropped bags of condoms on the ground, and put alcohol wipes, cottons, filters, tourniquets and bottle-cap cookers into an eight-drawer cabinet beside the seats.
“Basically everything you need to hit,” Reinke said, while sweeping his eyes over the mini heroin paraphernalia shop he just built in the interior. “Now I gotta wait for calls.”
It’s been the start of his regular workday for 12 years, as the operator of the LifePoint Needle Exchange. Then he spends most of the day driving around the city, in response to the calls, usually about 12, from injection drug users in Madison area asking for syringes and other supplies.
“I had friends who used got hepatitis C from sharing equipment with other friends, so you hate to see someone sick.” Reinke talked about why he chose this job. “She was lucky that they didn’t have HIV, you know, 20 years ago, many people got HIV from using needles, it used to be one out of three nationally.” According to the data of Centers of Disease Control and Prevention until 2009, injection drug use accounts for a quarter of HIV transmissions.
Reinke said a heroin user needs about three to four syringes to get through one day, and if he is using cocaine, it will be 20 to 50 every day. However, the problem is, one can be fined more than $1,000 because the possession of drug paraphernalia is illegal in Wisconsin; and on the other hand, even though the distribution of needles is not illegal, most pharmacies in Madison don’t sell them to people without prescription because of the underlying moral issue. Therefore injection drug users have to turn to Reinke and his program that serve as a mediator in this dilemma, or they would share dirty needles.
“I am being included into these things and told about stuff that nobody is allowed to talk about, it is special that they share stories with you, trust you, you can’t tell anyone that you are doing heroin today or cocaine,” Reinke said while driving to the east side of the city, as an exchanger just called. “It will be a lot safer if everybody knew, if we knew who was doing it, where they were doing, what they were doing. It’s simply prohibition is ninety percent of the problem.”
The call was a young white girl with dark lips and bruised arms who headed into the van parked outside an Open Pantry. She grabbed some boxes of syringes and some cotton while chatting with Reinke about what her mom told her to do if she has no place on her arm to hit.
“Her mom is a nurse working in hospital, she does not want her to wreck her vein,” Reinke said when writing down the age and phone number of the girl after she left. “When you know someone, it becomes harm reduction immediately.”
The needle exchange program is based on the harm reduction model, in which the goal is to reduce any negative consequences resulted from drug use. The CDC and the National Academy of Sciences had similar conclusions that NEPs can reduce HIV’s spread among IV drug users, their partners and children. In Wisconsin, According to the 2010 annual report of AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, Lifepoint reduced the annual HIV infection rate for drug users by 66 percent.
United States Surgeon General and Department of Health and Human Services have endorsed the finding that NEP does not increase drug use. Nevertheless, because it might symbolize an approval of drug use, since 1988 U.S. government did not allow any federal money to be spent in NEPs until President Obama signed a bill repealing the ban in 2009.
However, according to UW-Madison social work instructor and clinical social worker Amy Garvey, the federal government hasn’t given money to NEP and those in Wisconsin are still funded with mostly private grant and some state grant. “Our society is still conservative in terms of drug treatment, and the cultural emphasis on personal responsibility doesn’t support any governmental intervention.”
“My mom is concerned with my safety and doesn’t understand what I do,” said Reinke, parking the van in front of the house of another exchanger who just called. “Just those big scary words like heroin and cocaine can be really scary, especially to someone who doesn’t know about it.”
After 20 minutes, Reinke gave up waiting. “ It’s probably because he saw a new guy in the van,” Reinke said. “They are super sensitive.”
Instead of going back right away Reinke decided to stay outside, since he received a call telling him a police officer was waiting in his office to talk to him about the program. “ We talked once but she still wants to talk more,” Reinke explained, adding that. “ I don’t want to talk to the cops at all, just because I know too much about my people, I don’t want to disclose something that I shouldn’t for their safety.”
Furthermore, Reinke said, the police even tracked his cell phone. “It’s simply harassment, ” Reinke said. “The number of heroin overdoses is increasing in Madison, why are the wasting time on me instead of the dealers?”
“There’re a lot of individualities in both of those,” Garvey commented on the conflict. To the NEP workers it’s not important whether the people coming to him are criminals because they only care whether they are sick, but some of the police are more conservative and see it as criminal issue. “The drug enforcement people would be foolish to not look at who is coming to see James.”
Garvey believes it’s a means to an end to find out where the major supply is by following the NEPs. “They are not so concerned about people using drugs, but more about the people delivering to them.”
However, even for investigative purpose, if he gives police the information of his clients as they asked for, the users would be scared and stop coming to get clean needles, which could lead to more cases of HIV, Reinke insisted. “It shouldn’t be a crime, it’s health issue.”
Last year Lifepoint gave away about 200,000 syringes, this year by the end of September it’s 210,000 already, Reinke said. “Every year a couple of people I know die. It really sucks.”
“ Needle exchange is just one tool in the toolbox of harm reduction,” Garvey said, expecting harm reduction-based and cross-sectional collaboration in the future, even though the abstinence model is still on its continuum and criminalization is increasing. “We need all of the people in these field including enforcement and medical agencies and policy makers to work together to make it available for everybody.
“Always be careful, and find out how to stay safe. We encourage community input as it relates to injection drug use and any positive change,” says the first page of the annual zine One Shot that Reinke publishes to educate drug users about drug use safety and encourage them share personal experience.
“It’s not like it’s a monster, it’s still the person, going through something,” Reinke said about the users, when he drove back to the Capitol Square in the light of the setting sun, assuming the police officer had gone.

Sectarian Theology: The Religion and Politics of Division

Mystic Politics

‘Religion has done much good in the world, but it becomes dangerous when the “us and them” worldview grows rigid — when “we” claim moral (or theological) superiority over others. No one should know this better than Santorum, for Roman Catholics have been among the most persecuted groups in America. Yet for Santorum, history has had no modulating effect. The “phony” remark seems, at worst, calculated to remind voters of Wright and the “liberation theology” he preached, and in so doing to incite racism and fear.’

Read more: Sectarian Theology: The Religion and Politics of Division

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Village Hidden from Time – PS for J School Application

July, 2010.

As our car climbed along the twisting path up the Larung valley on the south edge of the Tibetan Plateau at 4,200 meters, so did my heart rate. However, it had more to do with the breathtaking view than altitude sickness. A mass assembly of myriad red-painted wooden huts blanketed the flanking pairs of steep hillsides, clustering around a grand golden-topped monastery. Swarms of monks and nuns in sanguine robes and with hair shorn short were praying and conversing in serenity, as they were walking along the muddy paths towards the monastery.

We were entering the largest and most influential Tibetan Buddhist academy in the world, which, however, was virtually unknown in China. “During its zenith in the 80’s and 90’s, here were nearly 10,000 monks studying and living in Serthar Institute founded by Khenpo Jikphun. The government was intimidated by its rapid growth beyond their control, even though it served no political purpose. So they expelled the monks away, destroyed their dwellings, and scaled back the settlement down to 1, 500,” said Kelang, a local Tibetan official and my father’s friend who offered us guidance and special admission to the secluded village. “But in recent years, they are coming back regardless of the policy.”

In the past thirty years, hearsay of a sagacious lama preaching there had been bringing thousands of disciples from all over the world to this Arcadia of Buddhist worship after a pilgrimage across a forbidding range of mountains. Even after Jikphun’s death in 2004, they continued their living and studying for enlightenment in the huts built by themselves, with no government support, but reluctant toleration and suspicious restriction. In such a place both spiritually and literally near the heavens, the monks yet still had to perform mundane routines. The mess hall, grocery shop, wireless retail and other infrastructures, funded by private donations, were filled with crimson robes.

Standing on the top of Larung, which meant “the place to learn” in Tibetan, I wished that I were a religious scholar, historian or sociologist, to tell the story of Serthar Institute more comprehensively. However, after all, I could still act as a citizen journalist to pursue the goals of social empathy and investigation.

After returning home, I penned an account of my three days in Serthar and submitted it to several newspapers. Unfortunately, they all declined to publish it due to the politically sensitive content. I was not surprised by the blackout though; I had not found the institute even in the official brochure of Serthar before.

When I left Serthar I presented my Canon to Kelang, as he promised to record the happenings there in the future until I come back with more finely-honed journalistic instincts.

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One Night in Pyongyang

July. 3rd 

 It was a coal-powered green-skinned vintage train, of the type that, as I had seen in stereotypical 70s Chinese films, was once laden with millions of zealous Red Guards from every corner of the country on their way towards Tian’an men Square.

          Now, carrying only sixteen tourists in its empty and anachronistic carriages, the train tottered across the Yalu River from Danton, China to Sinujiu, North Korea. Serving as a time machine transporting us back to an age I was only familiar with from old films, its speed was overwhelmingly fast.

          Only twenty minutes after boarding the green coach, when I looked out of the window to the platform of Sinujiu station, my sight was bombarded with ubiquitous propaganda, portraits and words of dramatic weightiness in their red ink that raised alternating waves of fear, curiosity and uneasiness in my head.

            I was not the only one who sensed the changed atmosphere; Shane, one of my two companions, glanced through the same glass as I at short tan-armed and well-armed Korean guards and officers patrolling the railways, and commented: “You know what, talking about the sense of intimidation, the interesting part is that I really need to go to the bathroom…”

            “Scared? Already pissed your pants in twenty minutes?” I interrupted him with teasing.

            “No, I am saying it’s such an ordinary easy and casual conduct to go to a bathroom, see, it is probably just over there in the station twenty meters away from our train. But now, in such a setting, I am too intimidated to even take a single step; I am even paranoid about if it is permitted to leave for there, you know what I mean?”

            Our third companion, Gang, agreed saying: “There is a pervasive air of control and constraint out here.” His words were followed by a moment of tense silence.

            “Don’t worry. It was never a part of Juche Philosophy to lock people’s bladder, but brain and mouth.” I broke the silence with laughter. At the same time, the tour coordinator from Korea started to take away and keep the tourists’ passports for the duration of our stay in the DPRK.

            However, even though at that time we had been too intimidated to walk even meters away to a bathroom, we did something much less cowardly three days later.

July, 6th

           After dinner we came back to our hotel on the north edge of Yanggak Islet, which lay in the lower reach of Taedong River dividing the city into west and east. Adjacent to yet isolated from the heart of downtown, our 47 forty-story Yangako International Hotel acted as the primary reception for foreign visitors to this “showcase capital”.

           With a revolving restaurant in the penthouse, and a casino underground, it was not a hard job for tourists to kill the time while so caged. However, unlike our fellow Chinese tourists who rested themselves with these amenities after a day spent being taken around, our journey in this city had just begun with the sunset on the far end of Taedong River: we would attempt to escape from the Yanggak Islet to explore Pyongyang on our own.

         The last two days’ tour had been anything but fascinating. We went to Mount Myohyang, which I had originally taken to be a place for natural sightseeing. However, it turned out to be a humongous underground palace in the mountain for an extravagant exhibition of the treasures of the Kims’ that were presented to them by other countries diplomatically. We then spent hours listening to the tour guide chanting out the story of Kim Il Sung while visiting Mangyongdae, the place where he was born and spent his childhood. The tour to the Schoolchildren Palace, Kim Il Sung Square, North Korea’s upstaging take on L’Arc de Triomphe and several other strongly ideologically charged memorial sites did not satisfy me either.

          What I want to see of the city was something “depoliticized”, something real about the daily routines of the inhabitants, something trivial but genuine. Otherwise, the journey would be but a waste of browsing the superficial and grandiloquent propaganda pet on stage for tourists like us.

          When night fell, we went out from the front gate scrupulously. However, just around the parking lot we met Han, the Korean tour guide and security official who spoke fluent Chinese and had claimed to us of having eight girlfriends in Beijing after we treated him with beer on our train to his country. For most of the time though, he looked stiff and stern-faced. “Where are you guys going?” Han demanded on seeing us in the lot.

           “Just taking a walk around. I had too much to eat. The hotpot was so yummy, wasn’t it?” Gang tried to shift the topic.

           “Yeah, that was good… anyways, listen, you can’t walk too far away, and come back as soon as possible.”

           “No problem.”

            After making sure that Han had returned to the hotel, we continued walking. It was easier than we thought to escape, even though we were still a little vigilant and nervous. After fifteen minutes walking south, we were assured that nobody would stop us, and our nerves settled. There was nothing but excitement left in our minds as we checked the map of Pyongyang bought from a souvenir shop with a flashlight while heading onward.

           The plan was to cross the river to the west, walk through the central district, and go north to the Kim Il Sung University if possible. As I learned before from a documentary, people in Pyongyang spent most nights without electricity. When we looked far off from the Yanggak Bridge, the sky-scraping Juche Tower stood on the far edge of the Taedong River beaming with white glare, leaving the rest of the city cloaked in darkness.

           Glancing around, our view of Pyongyang seemed plain and monochrome. Those images that I was accustomed to filling my sight, the logos, neon lamp, advertisements, fashion, and celebrities of consumerist culture, were all filtered out. There were just white buildings, gray broad streets, and undecorated green trees. Everything lay naked in the fluorescent-free darkness. Still, despite this darkness, we were still noticeable as all around us the people wore a badge of the Great Leader over their heart, but either nobody noticed, or they didn’t care and we passed by un-harassed.

            At this time of the day, everything seemed to take back seat to the simpler face of life. As we walk through the central district, more and more people came across us from the gloom. Some were groups of men wearing old-fashion shirts chatting and smoking along the street with briefcases under their arms. Some were middle-aged women strolling along with one hand carrying plastic bags and the other holding their children. Some were young male and female students in white uniforms, giggling and chasing each other around the bus station. Some were troops of the People’s Army in formation marching across the blocks in silence.

           Life was nothing imperfect because of the darkness that had been taken for granted.

          Surprisingly, we found a small grocery store still open at the corner of a street with a light on. The saleswoman was cleaning up the glass counter, in which there were still some basic food supplies unsold, such as soy sauce, salt, oil and vegetables. A thick book with names and numbers was hung on the wall. It must have been the register of the residents’ monthly consumption, as every deal was under strict scrutiny in their planned economy.

          Even knowing it was improbable, Gang tried to ask the saleswoman to trade for some North Korean won for as keepsake. However, she frowned upon his broken Korean and ridiculous body language. At the same time, I saw a boy with a “red scarf” around his neck reading with head bent at the corner. Sitting next to the kid I peered over at what he was reading, and found it to be an English textbook with cartoon illustrations and simple sentences with Korean translations underneath. He stopped for a moment to pass a gaze at me, and then continued reading confidently with a strong Korean accent.

          “What do you want to do?” the boy voiced. “I want to play…”

          “Football” I continued, as he was stuck. There was a sketch of people playing soccer in the blank space of the page, clearly in the kid’s own hand. It reminded me of the doodling I used to do in class while bored. “Jong Tae-Se?” I asked, referring to the famous North Korean forward, and pointed at his drawing. The boy giggled and nodded to me. I guessed he probably hadn’t known that North Korea was crushed by Portugal with in a gruesome 7-0 match several days before in the World Cup.

            Finally, with a bill of 50 North Korean won waved in hand, Gang urged us to leave. “She liked the 20 yuan bill with Mao’s portrait. It must be illegal though.” Gang explained. It is forbidden to trade for foreign currency in North Korea, as well as private transaction in food and gold supplies.

           Even under such a strictly controlled economy, there could always be found some free markets operating in certain ways. As we went further north, there appeared numerous scattered lights around construction sites. Upon closer inspection, we found ourselves in the midst of many tiny stalls lit by the owners’ flashlights. We had found a black market. Surrounding the lights, people were exchanging various random goods, ranging from hairpins and pens, to pickles and grains.

          Approaching a traditionally dressed old lady with blankets of kimchi on sale, I bumped into someone in the surrounding crowd, and we turned to each other at the same time. In front of me stood Han, face livid and eyes set on me in the orange glare from the old lady’s ad-hoc stall. Pointing to the kimchi with my eyes, I pretended in gleeful tones to cover the embarrassment: “Aha, are they any good, guide Han?”

           We were taken back to the hotel along the way we came. Han was so enraged that he even threatened to not return our passport if we kept making troubles. However, we kept arguing that we wanted to have a closer look at the city, and after negotiation, to our surprise, Han agreed to take us around. It might have been because he was afraid we would sneak out again anyways, but we were still enthused.

           This was such a unique privilege for the three of us that Han, with the company of the tour coordinator Eunhee, decided to drive us to “somewhere interesting”, as he described. After fifteen minutes, when our mini bus approached the Arch of Triumph, I saw something that I honestly did not even expect to see in that country: an amusement park. Before me was the liveliest and bustling scene I had yet witnessed in the whole trip. The park was filled with the jollification of thousands of people, lining up at limited facilities. At each attraction, streams of smiles radiated and whirled along with the colorful illuminations.

           “It was recently established and is the largest in our country. The facilities were imported from Italy” Eunhee said, in fascinated tones. “There is a certain quota of admissions for every department in the city. I haven’t got a chance to have fun yet.”

           Taking advantage of our privilege as foreign tourists, we bought our guides tickets as well. Eunhee pleasantly joined us to take a roller coaster ride. Han, however, bashfully refused the invitation, and we of course called him a coward. The roller coaster completely overthrew Eunhee’s previous stern visage as an introverted and graceful Korean lady when she screamed and laughed ten times louder than us three together.

            Descending from the thrill ride, we found another phenomenon within the first that seemed inherently incompatible with this austere country: a fast food restaurant. Hot dogs, burgers, pancakes, soda and many other foods from the “hostile country” were on sale. Several well-dressed young ladies with were queuing for a meal that cost 450 won, which, as Eunhee explained, was two weeks’ salary for the saleswomen who served the food. I could not but imagine the disparity between those living inside and outside the capital.

            Returning after our revelry past ten thirty, the Juche Tower had already gone dark. The park we had left would remain a glowing source of light for those gleeful faces we had met however, at least until midnight. Only two days later was the anniversary of the death of Kim Il-sung.